Southeast River Runs Part 8: Coal ash on the Savannah River

Guest Blog | August 8, 2013 | Coal, Energy Policy

This is the eighth blog in a series featuring rivers of the Southeast endangered by toxic coal ash pollution. The rest of the series can be found here. Thanks to Tonya Bonitatibus, Savannah Riverkeeper, who contributed to this post.

The Savannah river provides drinking water for Augusta and Savannah Georgia, Beaufort and Hilton Head in South Carolina and many other communities in its basin.

From its headwaters in the Blue Ridge Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean, the Savannah River flows 300 miles through farmlands, forests, pine plantations, reservoirs, and wetlands; draining an area of 10,577 square miles. Historically, the Savannah was a major transportation route and remains the shipping channel for the Port of Savannah,the tenth-busiest port for oceangoing container ships in the U.S.

The Savannah and its tributaries are home more than seventy-five species of rare plants, fish, and amphibians including the endangered short nosed sturgeon, swallow-tailed kite,  rocky shoals spider lily, wild cocoa tree and 1,000 year old bald cypress trees (click read more for a picture!). The river draws anglers with a diversity of sport fish ranging from rainbow, brown and brook trout in the basin’s upper reaches to warm water species further south like largemouth bass, bluegill, catfish, and redear sunfish. Each year the Savannah and its lakes are home to several fishing tournaments, and are popular for boating, wind sailing, birding and swimming.

Despite the river’s scenic beauty, natural diversity, and economic and cultural significance, the Savannah is heavily impaired by industry, utilities and decades of alteration for the shipping industry. One of the most insidious threats to this important resource is toxic coal ash along its banks. 

A tributary of the Savannah River, Ebenezer Creek is a designated national landmark and is the best remaining cypress-gum swamp forest in the Savannah River basin.

Many industrial facilities rely on the Savannah River for operations and waste disposal including three coal-fired power plants: Georgia Power’s McIntosh and Kraft Power Station near Rincon, and Port Wentworth, Georgia and the Urquhart Generating station operated by South Carolina Gas and Electric in Beech Island, S.C. At last official count the seven coal ash impoundments at these plants contained almost 130 million gallons of coal ash along the Savannah’s banks. That’s enough waste to cover 303 football fields one foot deep in toxic waste.

Even though coal ash can contain elevated concentrations of known carcinogens such as mercury, lead and arsenic, neither plant has any limits on the amounts of these toxins they can dump in the Savannah River. It’s no surprise, then, that the EPA has found the Savannah to be the nation’s 7th most toxic river.

Luckily, communities along the Savannah haven’t given up on their river, despite these challenges, and are working to protect and restore the Savannah as a resource for all. Projects are now underway to restore some of the river’s historical path by recreating oxbows eradicated by channelization for shipping, and a fish ladder will soon help sturgeon and other migratory fish travel upstream past the Savannah Bluff Dam in Augusta, GA. “People are caring about the river again,” says Savannah Riverkeeper, Tonya Bonitatibus. Over the years, Bonitatibus has seen a shift as environmental protection laws have worked to clean up many kinds of pollution to our rivers, saying:

“before the Clean Water Act, pollution was so bad that there was a culture of people just forgetting the river. We were so fundamentally broken. It’s taken a while to start cleaning things up, but now we’re seeing people reconnecting with rivers like the Savannah.”

But there’s still more work to be done and right now we all have an opportunity to put stronger protections from coal ash pollution in place. Until September 20, the EPA is taking public comments on new Coal Plant Water Pollution Standards – an important piece of the puzzle in controlling coal ash pollution. Send your comments now and ask the EPA to stop coal ash pollution on the Savannah, and all rivers nationwide.

Meanwhile, Congressional efforts are under way to undermine EPA’s authority to regulate coal ash and prevent the establishment of federal minimum safeguards. Send a message to your Representative today and ask that they oppose these efforts and let EPA do its job to regulate this toxic trash.

The Savannah Riverkeeper is a non-profit organization working to a make the Savannah River a healthy and productive watershed ensuring the natural, economic, and recreational viability of the basin as a whole now and for generations to come. To learn more about the river, or get involved to help out, visit their webpage at 

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